“Are you going down to the brook?” Muriel asks me. Her hands are shaky as she tries to lift a styro-foam cup of water to her lips. I see the slip and catch the accident before it happens.
“No, Muriel. I’m getting it from the kitchen down the hall. I will be right back.” I walk down the hall of the hospital unit that is our temporary home. It has been a long day for the eighty-eight year old. The later it gets, the more her reality begins to fray. My heart strings right along with it.
Last week, as I was walking past the front reception desk, Shannon, the ward clerk, was teasing Muriel about her love of cheese. “Muriel it’s all gone! You ate the whole batch!” Muriel laughed. She had a smile and a kind word for everyone. She, as well as a few other patients who required consistent supervision, often sat near the nurse’s desk. Muriel sat in her wheelchair chatting with people and watching all “the busy bodies,” as she likes to call them, go about their days. Knowing that I had an extra little package of cheese, I decided to give my snack to the silver haired sweetheart.
“Is this for me?! Oh, I do love my cheese!” I assured her it was and she finally conceded saying, “Well, maybe I’ll just have one bite.” She was lovable instantly.
Over the next week, I began to take her for walks up, down and around these halls. I think we both enjoyed a change of scenery. Staying in bed all day often makes you feel as if the walls are closing in on you. Trying to maneuver my IV pole while pushing her wheelchair at the same time was challenging but she never seemed to mind. One of the things I learned on our walks was that she loved to talk, and it was not long at all before Muriel began to tell me her stories.
She would weave a complicated soap-operatic tryst among three of the doctors. She would just point at any random passersby and assign their roles as characters in the day’s episode. There was a good doctor gentleman who married a lovely lady doctor whom he loved very much. But she broke his heart when she started running around with another male doctor. “And those two just flaunt it all around here like she does not even care! That nice man did not deserve to have his heart broken.”
She was very odd when it came to men. For the most part she was jovial towards them. Yet she was always doling out advice such as, “You can’t trust men.” “Men will only hurt you.” While rounding the bend on our little jaunt yesterday morning she chirped, “This is better than having a boyfriend!”
Muriel’s favorite stories were ones about her father. “My Daddy is coming to pick me up! I can’t wait to see my Daddy. He was always so good to me. When I was eight years old my Daddy bought me a shiny red bicycle! Daddy is building a new room on the house just for me. He builds big strong houses. I Daddy loves me so much. I love him.”
The rattle of the ice machine in the patient kitchen jolts me from my daze. I pour Muriel’s ice water, but when I walk out into the hallway she was no longer there. I move in the direction of her room. I could hear her before I could see her.
Muriel was shouting obscenities the likes I’ve never even heard of. She was shouting at a group of nonexistent (but very real to her) men who were shoo-ing invisible mice running around the foot of her bed. The nurses remained calm, though I’ll never know how, and tried to settle and soothe her into bed. Muriel continued to fuss aggressively. I sat in the hallway trying not to cry. She was so scared and confused. Eventually, she succumbed to exhaustion allowing the nurses to bathe her and get her ready to go to sleep.
“Muriel? Can I come in and say goodnight?” I told the frazzled nurse I would sit with her awhile when they were finished her bedtime routine in hopes that she would fall asleep. I took a seat at her bedside.
“Those men are never going to forget some of the names I called them tonight! I told them every bad wrong thing I could think of. Maybe I should be sorry. Know why I’m not sorry? I was angry and shouting bad names made me feel so good!” I laughed, telling her it was good not to keep things bottled up inside.
All of the sudden, the nurse pressed the button to raise the head of Muriel’s hospital bed and the woman went white with fear, “STOP! I’m too scared!” The nurse told me she was terrified of the bed moving. Every night she would panic. “I need something to hold on to,” she whimpered in a voice so small it could have been a child’s.
I gave her my arm. “Hold on to me.”
The next night’s bedtime ritual went a lot smoother. Muriel was all washed up, settling into the bed, all the while petting a pink plush mouse. In fact, she had barely put the stuffed animal down since I’d given it to her earlier that day.
“I love my Dusty Rose mouse!” she beamed. “It’s my favorite color and best buddy and I love him all day long.”
“Well, last night you said you wanted something to hold onto when the bed moves and if you wake up scared. Now, you’ll always have a hug wherever you are,” I said turning off the overhead light switch, filling the room with a dim glow. “Muriel, it’s as if you were my grandmother.”
“I love you as though I were your grandmother,” she murmured.
Over the next hour or so I sat alongside the elderly lady as she tread water in the place between sleep and awake, between memories and realities. While we talked I ran a gentle trail up and down her arm with my fingertips.
“That’s making fall asleep," she whispered. I told her she should. Just as I thought those translucent eyelids has closed for the night, Muriel spoke.“My Daddy married another woman,"she said with poignant clarity."He married that woman when he was still married to my mother. They had a baby. The new baby made me sad. Then he was too busy. Busy with the baby, the new woman and building houses. That is why he couldn't come back. I love my Daddy so much. He told me he would build a room for me. Then when he is ready he is coming to pick me up.”
My chest is throbbing with heartache for the eighty-eight year old little girl looking so small tucked in a sea of blankets.
“I will have to get along with that woman. It was a long time ago. Too long ago to carry angry feelings. Even though that hurt, she makes my Daddy happy. What is important is my Daddy is happy. We will all be happy together in the new house when he builds me my new room.” She gives in to sleep.
It was remarkable how she looked more like a small child with a plush toy tucked up under her arm, than a lady nearing the end of her life. After all her lifetime, being married, having twin sons – who had twin daughters – all those memories, and it is being a small child with her father that is her happiest place to go. All the fragments of a lifetime drifting like snowflakes from a sky we can see no end to. Every single night she falls asleep dreaming of her happiest place and waiting. Believing that one of these nights, Daddy will come and pick her up. Maybe one night he will. And she will be happy riding her shiny red bicycle in the front yard of a big beautiful house her father built.